Many mergers benefit competition and consumers by allowing firms to operate more efficiently. But some mergers change market dynamics in ways that can lead to higher prices, fewer or lower-quality goods or services, or less innovation.
Section 7 of the Clayton Act prohibits mergers and acquisitions when the effect “may be substantially to lessen competition, or to tend to create a monopoly.” The key question the agency asks is whether the proposed merger is likely to create or enhance market power or facilitate its exercise. The greatest antitrust concern arises with proposed mergers between direct competitors (horizontal mergers). The FTC and the DOJ have developed Horizontal Merger Guidelines that set out the agencies’ analytical framework for answering that key question, and have provided a Commentary on the Horizontal Merger Guidelines that provides many specific examples of how those principles have been applied in actual mergers reviewed by the agencies.
Merger law is generally forward-looking: it bars mergers that may lead to harmful effects. The premerger notification requirements of the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act allow the antitrust agencies to examine the likely effects of proposed mergers before they take place. This advance notice avoids the difficult and potentially ineffective “unscrambling of the eggs” once an anticompetitive merger has been completed. The agencies also investigate some completed mergers that subsequently appear to have harmed customers.
Each year, the FTC and Department of Justice review over a thousand merger filings. Fully 95 percent of merger filings present no competitive issues. For those deals requiring more in-depth investigation, the FTC has developed Merger Best Practices to help streamline the merger review process and more quickly identify deals that present competitive problems. For those, it is often possible to resolve competitive concerns by consent agreement with the parties, which allows the beneficial aspects of the deal to go forward while eliminating the competitive threat. In a few cases, the agency and the parties cannot agree on a way to fix the competitive problems, and the agency may go to federal court to prevent the merger pending an administrative trial on the merits of the deal.
By law, all information provided to, or obtained by, the agencies in a merger investigation is confidential, and the agencies have very strict rules against disclosing it. These rules prevent the agencies from even disclosing the existence of an investigation. In some situations, however, the parties themselves may announce their merger plans, and the FTC may then confirm the existence of an investigation.
Premerger Notification and the Merger Review Process
Under the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act, parties to certain large mergers and acquisitions must file premerger notification and wait for government review. The parties may not close their deal until the waiting period outlined in the HSR Act has passed, or the government has granted early termination of the waiting period. The FTC administers the premerger notification program, and its staff members answer questions and maintain a website with helpful information about how and when to file. The FTC also provides daily updates of deals that receive early termination.
Steps in the Merger Review Process
Step One: Filing Notice of a Proposed Deal
Not all mergers or acquisitions require a premerger filing. Generally, the deal must first have a minimum value and the parties must be a minimum size. These filing thresholds are updated annually. In addition, some stock or asset purchases are exempt, as are purchases of some types of real property. For further help with filing requirements, see the FTC’s Guides to the Premerger Notification Program. There is a filing fee for premerger filings.
For most transactions requiring a filing, both buyer and seller must file forms and provide data about the industry and their own businesses. Once the filing is complete, the parties must wait 30 days (15 days in the case of a cash tender offer or a bankruptcy) or until the agencies grant early termination of the waiting period before they can consummate the deal.
Step Two: Clearance to One Antitrust Agency
Parties proposing a deal file with both the FTC and DOJ, but only one antitrust agency will review the proposed merger. Staff from the FTC and DOJ consult and the matter is “cleared” to one agency or the other for review (this is known as the “clearance process”). Once clearance is granted, the investigating agency can obtain non-public information from various sources, including the parties to the deal or other industry participants.
Step Three: Waiting Period Expires or Agency Issues Second Request
After a preliminary review of the premerger filing, the agency can:
- terminate the waiting period prior to the end of the waiting period (grant Early Termination or “ET”);
- allow the initial waiting period to expire; or
- issue a Request for Additional Information (“Second Request”) to each party, asking for more information.
If the waiting period expires or is terminated, the parties are free to close their deal. If the agency has determined that it needs more information to assess the proposed deal, it sends both parties a Second Request. This extends the waiting period and prevents the companies from completing their deal until they have “substantially complied” with the Second Request and observed a second waiting period. A Second Request typically asks for business documents and data that will inform the agency about the company’s products or services, market conditions where the company does business, and the likely competitive effects of the merger. The agency may conduct interviews (either informally or by sworn testimony) of company personnel or others with knowledge about the industry.
Step Four: Parties Substantially Comply with the Second Requests
Typically, once both companies have substantially complied with the Second Request, the agency has an additional 30 days to review the materials and take action, if necessary. (In the case of a cash tender offer or bankruptcy, the agency has 10 days to complete its review and the time begins to run as soon as the buyer has substantially complied.) The length of time for this phase of review may be extended by agreement between the parties and the government in an effort to resolve any remaining issues without litigation.
Step Five: The Waiting Period Expires or the Agency Challenges the Deal
The potential outcomes at this stage are:
- close the investigation and let the deal go forward unchallenged;
- enter into a negotiated consent agreement with the companies that includes provisions that will restore competition; or
- seek to stop the entire transaction by filing for a preliminary injunction in federal court pending an administrative trial on the merits.
Unless the agency takes some action that results in a court order stopping the merger, the parties can close their deal at the end of the waiting period. Sometimes, the parties will abandon their plans once they learn that the agency is likely to challenge the proposed merger.
In many merger investigations, the potential for competitive harm is not a result of the transaction as a whole, but rather occurs only in certain lines of business. One example would be when a buyer competes in a limited line of products with the company it seeks to buy. In this situation the parties may resolve the concerns about the merger by agreeing to sell off the particular overlapping business unit or assets of one of the merging parties, but then complete the remainder of the merger as proposed. This allows the procompetitive benefits of the merger to be realized without creating the potential for anticompetitive harm. Many merger challenges are resolved with a consent agreement between the agency and the merging parties.